Greensburg vet to reunite with fellow USS Forrestal survivors
Of the 5,000 or so men aboard the USS Forrestal on July 29, 1967, 134 died and 161 were injured when a bomb explosion triggered a massive fire on the aircraft carrier in the Gulf of Tonkin during the Vietnam War.
When survivors of the blaze reunite in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, 50 years to the date of the accident, a Greensburg veteran will be among them.
“I don't think I'll see too many more 50s,” said Jim McGeever, 71. “That's pretty much a milestone.”
Organized by the nonprofit USS Forrestal Association, the reunion will be McGeever's first. As he remembers that day, it's clear he doesn't often talk about it.
The fire began that morning when a power surge accidentally discharged a 1,000-pound rocket on a fighter jet. It was the first link in a chain-reaction of eight more explosions, as the other planes had just returned from an early morning mission.
“All those planes were refueled and rearmed,” said Forrestal Association historian Ken Killmeyer.
McGeever, then 21, saw the explosion from a control room where he recorded pilots' takeoff and landing times. He enlisted in the Navy when he was 18, six months after he graduated from Norwin High School.
“I wasn't much for education. I was a little bit on the wild side,” he said.
Unlike a lot of servicemen called to duty through the military draft, McGeever said he had no strong political feelings about the escalating war. Neither did many of the young men he befriended in the Navy; they simply enlisted to serve, he said.
A few of them were from Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, he said.
After two years of “nice, short” duty at Naval Air Base Key West, McGeever “went to the real Navy” upon receiving orders that placed him aboard the Forrestal alongside the likes of pilot and future U.S. Sen. John McCain.
The ship left for Vietnam early in June and arrived in late July.
McGeever said the day of the explosion was like any other onboard.
Then the bomb accidentally exploded and flew across the flight deck, striking an external fuel tank on a Skyhawk. The impact ignited the resulting spray of fuel, causing an instantaneous conflagration.
The blasts tore open a hole in the flight deck, killing seven members of McGeever's squadron.
“There was a lot of confusion. People were hurt, bodies were everywhere,” he recalled.
Members below deck, too, were killed or injured by the blast or burning jet fuel that seeped below.
No one on board was prepared for a fight like that, McGeever said.
From the radio room, he did his best to keep cool and contact members of his squadron to make sure they were safe. Two hours later, the blaze was finally contained; he and other crew members volunteered to help control what still smoldered below deck.
“When the people who were trained to be firemen needed a break, they told us to get the hell up there and give them a break,” McGeever said.
The beleaguered ship was towed back to the Philippines for repairs, and the crew members, dead and injured, were transferred to a hospital ship.
McGeever was back at sea on a different ship a year later. And a year after that, he returned to his home in Irwin, where he worked as a draftsman for Westinghouse and started a family.
He said he stayed close with the friends he made who lived in the area, but many of them later moved. He doubts he'll recognize many people at the reunion or that they'll recognize him. But he's looking forward to it all the same.
Members of the Forrestal Association will hold a ceremony Saturday at the Arlington Cemetery Amphitheater, in front of a group burial site where 18 of the ship's crew members are interred.
“They let us use the (amphitheater) this year for the 50th,” McGeever said. “And that's an honor.”